Marketing Quicksand

Writers dream of publishing their first book to widespread acclaim and skyrocketing sales as the world embraces a new blockbuster novel, genuflects at the author’s very name (and attractive single men throw champagne, long stemmed roses and room keys her way. OK, one of us added that, this being Valentine’s Day and all). The reality is that sales are more apt to only reach as far as one’s circle of friends and relatives (in our case, since we are a writing team and related, that’s one less book sale right off the bat, dang it). So unless you can fill the Rose Bowl with your cousins, you probably need to do some marketing. “Marketing” is the fancy business school term for “shameless self-promotion in hopes you can get more moolah from the effort than you actually spent on it.”

We’ve mentioned before that this is not just a self-publishing issue; all authors are expected to invest time and energy in promoting their books. If you have a publisher, they have worker bees who do things like arrange book signings, press interviews, random people to throw rose petals at you when you get out of a limousine, etc. If you self publish, and have to do all the above yourself (Can you throw rose petals at yourself? Does it count if you do?) All that represents time and energy that you could be using to write the next book, or clean up after an incontinent puppy (one of us has reason to know about this subject in alarmingly messy and smelly detail. All in, though, she considers “spot treating carpets four times a day” to be less of a hassle than self-promotion exercises). In other words, authors cannot just be writers. Each author is a small business and he/she must promote that business. Sure, publishing companies help in that process, but the author is a major mover of his/her – or in our case, their – own book.

One of us was given a list of websites where one can market a book. What these websites have in common is a readership looking for eBook deals (preferably free). Authors are provided several ways in which they can ‘sponsor’ their books on the site. ‘Sponsor’ is a fancy way of saying “pay good money so the site owner can say nice things about your book – the one you are giving away for next-to-nothing.”  That is, be listed as eBook of the day, thriller of the week, deal of the day, sucker of the century (OK, I made that last one up), etc. These sponsorship opportunities generally cost from $60 to $300 and come with glowing testimonials from former sponsors. (Sound like a literary Ponzi scheme?) Is it the least suspicious that no more than a handful of glowing testimonials are provided when each of these websites has four hundred or more sponsors each year?  Nawwww.  (One of us wonders if this site is run by the same nice people in Nigeria offering to help her make money on the Internet. She’s pretty sure it’s a similar financial model and has about the same return on investment.)

We’d like to give kudos to the one site that actually provided statistics on book sales before and after sponsorship. But we won’t, because the reward for providing some data is that we’ll analyze their data and rip the site apart. For purposes of this blog, let’s call this website MoneyPit.com. If you think that’s harsh, the ones that don’t provide any data about sales could be called Black Holes.con, and we do mean con. (Though at least black holes really exist. It’s not clear that an uptick in sales from using most of these sites does exist. Especially when you consider that the main site endorsements are from the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.) Seriously, if you want to spend money without really knowing what you’re getting, it’s okay with us. In fact, send us a check and we’ll talk up your book. (We’ll even leave a ringing endorsement in your Christmas stocking or under your pillow.)

On the MoneyPit site, there is a spreadsheet of authors and books sponsored over the past several months, including the price of the book, the type of sponsorship, Amazon sales rank before the promotion and highest rank reached. At first glance, the figures are impressive, as most books recorded incredible jumps in their Amazon sales ranks. Second glances are always more revealing. (Kind of like meeting a real person on DesperateSingles.com after viewing their profile photo –  an airbrushed college graduation picture from 25 years ago – “goods not quite as advertised.”)

Amazon does not provide sales figures correlated to rank. It’s a religious thing. People being what they are, a number of analytical types have made a stab at deducing sales versus rank, so we turn to those figures to determine how many actual book sales authors realized from the promotions. Now, our figures aren’t exact, but the general conclusion is that MoneyPit lives up to its name. If one just wants to sell books, it may be a good place to invest, but very few authors sell enough to recoup their investment.

Fact One: About 1/3rd of the authors spent an average of $170 promoting their free books. In other words, the buyer got it for free, the author lost real money. Doesn’t sound like a sustainable business model to us.

Fact Two: The % increase in Amazon sales rank is almost meaningless. For instance, Book A experienced a 1700% increase in rank (from 230,000 to 12,000). Impressed? Don’t be: they sold 8 books. Book B sales increased a mere 200% (from 9000 to 3000) but sold about 30 books.

Fact Three: Of those that actually charged for their eBook, no more than 20% recouped their investments through increased sales. Not a surprise. If you spend $170 to promote a $1.99 book, you’d have to sell 125 books to recover your costs.

Fact Four: Higher priced books (over $2.99) don’t generally see large bumps in sales, but because of the book price, they are more apt to recover their costs.

Conclusion: Despite the fact we’ve ripped these sites as meaningful investments (nobody advertises: “spend oodles with us and get absolutely nothing for it! But wait, order now, and you can throw even more money down a rat hole faster!”) That said, they could be good for authors who want to get their names out and make sales. However, it will require investing multiple times or multiple sites to make any headway on book sales. And the effect of these promos will be short lived. The readers of these sites are primarily looking for ‘deals’ so they are best perhaps for low (or zero) priced books. And really, after all the work you put into it, do you think your book should be free? You get what you pay for, and you “sell” what it’s priced for.

Will we be sponsoring our book through any of these sites? Perhaps later. For now, we are focused on completing book 2. When that is published, we may take the opportunity to promote both books together. For now, we are still working through our marketing plan. (And continuing to clean up after a very adorable but still slightly incontinent puppy, which, on some occasions, one of us does think about offering for sale on MoneyPit.com.)

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